Like most states the government of Iowa was modeled after the national government with a lawmaking group, a chief executive and a court system. At the national level the three parts of the government are called the Congress, the presidency and the courts. At the state level the three parts are called the legislature, the governor and the courts. 

People Power

In addition to the state government, there are smaller units of government in Iowa that also make laws. These include counties, cities and school districts. Whatever the level of government, however, it is the people who are the ultimate authority. Through their elected officials, the people write the laws and enforce them. And because making laws is the people’s business, Iowa lawmakers at all levels of government are required to conduct their business in public, where the people can hear the discussion and know how the people’s representatives voted. 

The State Legislature

Iowa’s state legislature makes laws for the entire state; levies taxes; defines criminal action; provides for the health, safety and education of residents; and regulates county and local government. There are two houses of the Iowa legislature: the House and the Senate. The Iowa House has 100 representatives, with one representative elected every two years from districts with equal populations. Two House districts are combined to form one Senate district, and one senator is elected from each senate district every four years. Every ten years the district lines are redrawn to keep the representation equal. The legislature meets in the majestic Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines. The Senate chamber is on the south side of the second floor; the House chamber is on the north side. 

Every senator or representative can propose new laws, called bills. For a bill to become law, it must be approved by a majority in both the House and the Senate. After that it goes to the governor for signature. If approved, the bill becomes a law. It is recorded in The Code of Iowa, which now includes many volumes containing all the laws of state government. If the governor vetoes it, the bill goes back to the legislature. If two-thirds of the legislatures in both houses vote for it again, the bill becomes a law without the governor’s signature.

Other Agencies Make Laws Too

Sometimes the state legislature delegates its law-making authority to state agencies or other units of Iowa government. State agencies make rules with the details of how laws are carried out. For example, the legislature may authorize the Department of Natural Resources to establish hunting regulations and set the hours for state parks. The Department of Corrections writes laws to provide for the care and safety of those in prisons and their visitors. These rules have all the authority of law, and they can set penalties for violators. 

Local Government

The state legislature also creates local governments and defines what their authority is. In towns and cities, voters elect a mayor and city council. They meet often to hear about issues and problems in the city and pass laws. In larger cities, the city council appoints a city manager who runs the day-to-day operations of departments like the police, fire department and water and sewer service. City council meetings are open to the public, and citizens can present their views on issues. 

Counties and Cities

Iowa is divided into 99 counties. While most are approximately 24 miles square, their populations vary widely. In 2013 Polk County, where the state capital of Des Moines is located, had 415,677 people while Adams County in southwest Iowa had 3,894. Each county is run by a board of supervisors elected by the voters. Voters also elect a county treasurer, auditor, sheriff and county attorney. These officials usually have offices in the court house in the county seat, often the largest town in the county and located near its center. Both cities and counties can levy taxes to pay for the services they provide. The main source of city and county income comes from taxes on those who own homes, buildings and land. 

Meetings of the city council and board of supervisors are open to the public, and citizens can present their views on issues. To give citizens the right to express themselves, proposals are often not voted upon in the meeting when they are first introduced. The council or board often waits a week or two before taking a final vote on it. This is another provision to keep government open to the public.

School Districts

School boards are another authority that can make laws. In 2016 there were 357 school districts. School board members are elected by the voters living within the school district. The district hires the school superintendent, approves taxes to operate the schools and buildings, and sets policies for the school district. The state legislature establishes some minimum standards for what courses the district must offer and requirements for high school graduation, but beyond that, the school district has a certain freedom to set their own rules. The superintendent hires school principals and teachers, manages the school budget, and makes recommendations to the school board on policy issues. Principals make rules for school buildings, and teachers make rules for their own classrooms. There are many levels of supervision operating at the same time within a single school district. 

It’s a Democracy—The People Rule

Many levels of government write laws and make rules. Our state and national constitutions spell out which level of government has authority for what responsibilities. When there are questions about authority, the courts often interpret how the constitutions divide those powers. Even the constitutions, however, ultimately get their power and authority from the people. In a democracy the people rule themselves.


  • U.S. Census Bureau. Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2013. 2013.
  • Iowa Department of Education. 2015-2016 Certified Enrollment Summary by District. 2015. 


How do state and local laws impact you, your family, and your school?

Media Artifacts

Reading Tip: Reading for Meaning
When reading for meaning, look for the purpose of the article. 'In a democracy the people rule themselves.' How is this explained?